It's not an MMORPG - yet - but Epiphany Games' Frozen Hearth is an ambitious project for a small indie team.
In the world of video game development, projects don't get much bigger, or much riskier, than massively-multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs. They can take a huge team many years to build, and after all that work they can fail to catch on with players and vanish within months. Major studios and publishers have made and lost fortunes with MMORPGs.
As such, it seems incredibly ambitious for a tiny team of less than a dozen permanent staff to dream of making one of these sprawling online adventures, but that is precisely what the team at Sydney's Epiphany Games has planned. During a long chat with CEO Morgan Lean and Lead Designer Sam Jensen, the pair told me about their plans for the future of their games.
Inspired by the success of games like World of Warcraft, Lean and Jensen decided they wanted to make an MMORPG, but soon realised that their ambition outstripped their capacity, at least for the time being. "We got some funding, and we continued doing design documents for our MMO project," Lean recalled.
Frozen Hearth was fleshed out by extensive concept art.
The MMO started out based in Sumerian mythology, and when that was judged to be too obscure, there was an over-correction, switching it to the well-trodden paths of Greek myth. Eventually, however, the team decided to simply write their own lore. "We tossed around a lot of ideas, and then our concept artist Adam Paquette did a bunch of paintings, and I wrote a bunch of narrative, and we came up with our world, Ámorrá."
"Then we did some more design documents, and we got to a point where we checked our pockets, checked the couches, and realised that we didn't have ten million dollars," Lean said. "So we asked ourselves, how can we get to that point? We looked at Blizzard, who got to making a giant MMO by building up over ten or fifteen years. So we thought we'd build up to that, and also expand on our narrative so we can introduce our world to players before we dump them into an MMO setting."
"Another genre we play is real-time strategy, so we looked at that, and thought, can we make a real-time strategy game?" Lean continued. "So, we went from there, and hence Frozen Hearth was born. We wrote new design documents for it, and spent about a year in pre-production, writing more documents and getting new art done, and some early coding."
Two years later, Frozen Hearth is now available to buy through digital retailers. One interesting story about how it came to be lay in Epiphany's choice of game engine.
"We picked the Gamebryo Engine because it was within our price range, and it did most of what we wanted," Lean explained. Epiphany added their own features to the engine, eventually forging a profitable relationship with the engine's owner. "All the modifications we made we actually licensed back to them," said Jensen. "We got a royalty for every sale of the Gamebryo engine from that point on." It's an unorthodox funding model, but it worked: the majority of Frozen Hearth's funding came from the Gamebryo deal.
Epiphany's ambition did not end there. Unhappy with the hit-and-miss nature of being approved for sale through Steam, especially the lottery nature of Steam's Greenlight initiative, the Epiphany team decided to do all of the back-end work themselves. This meant they had to create their own online sales platform and DRM server, and in the long-term random multiplayer matchmaking, leaderboards, and other community features.
So, what is Frozen Hearth? In general form, it is a real-time strategy game, of the kind commonly referred to as a MOBA or DOTA-style game. Each force in the game controls a "hero" character - an extra-tough unit that will become more experienced and skilful over time. Players build up huge home bases, and create more general units to capture control points on the map, which then in turn grant resources that allow creation of larger armies and more powerful buildings and upgrades.
The primary race of Frozen Hearth is a collection of barbarian tribes called the Danaan, racked by constant in-fighting. They are forced into an uneasy truce when a mysterious icy force begins encroaching across the land, sheets of frost bringing deep winter wherever they go. With the ice come creatures, horrific, inhuman beings of ice, who are apparently determined to march inexorably across the whole world.
In a single-player game, the campaign details the retreat of the Danaan from the encroaching ice, loading up huge numbers of people and fleeing to a remote archipelago. The bulk of the campaign then involves colonising these new lands, and defending them against all comers, both rival groups of Danaan and the inevitable arrival of the ice creatures.
The warlike nature of the Danaan gives a convenient excuse for multiplayer, as they may fight each other in free-for-alls, form uneasy alliances when required, and also unite against a common threat. As such, there are many types of maps and multiplayer modes, and the main campaign can also be played co-operatively by several friends.
The RTS gameplay is fairly standard in form, but is very well-tuned. Epiphany have spent many months testing various armies and abilities together, hammering out any overly powerful combinations.
I have only played a few hours so, far, so I will be publishing a full review early in the new year. For now, however, fans of real-time strategy who are looking for something new could do a lot worse for just twenty dollars.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez